Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor takes you on an elegiac journey, introducing you to complex personal histories and tragedies. Set in northern Kenyan's dust, darkness and daylight, this novel is a memoir of lives transformed by tribal and political conflicts and colonial processes and imperialistic excesses. The novel presents a tour de force narrative about lost fathers, brothers, sons and women and descends into the labyrinth-like individual stories to present a tale of a family, country, humanity.

A sister Ajany returns to Kenya to find her brother Odidi. She has seen his corpse, but she seeks a closure, an understanding of Odidi's life before his tragic end. The siblings grew up in a dusty Kenyan countryside, in a massive house, where all the books are inscribed with a name of a foreigner or a stranger, Hugo Bolton. Their mother Akai is a mysterious women, who has her own complex narrative of love lost and found, that emerges in bits and parts as we read the novel. Their father Nyipir is a person who in one life acquires many  incarnations, some as he is forced by his own needs, greed and wants, and many to just survive Kenya's turbulent times. Servant of a white man, gravedigger, sepoy, cattle thief, husband, father, a friend to many smugglers and wanderers, a young man who wanted to travel to Burma to retrieve his father and brother's bodies to bury them in their own country. There is a fascinating singer of water songs, Ali Hida Dada, a policemen whose own complex life journey crisscrosses through the personal histories of Nyipir, Akai, Ajany, Odidi and a fifth person, Galgalu who is attached to the Nyipir-Akai household, like a foster son. Isiah Bolton, a son in search of a father who disappeared in Kenya. There are a handful of other characters that complete the list: Justina (Odidi's lady love), Selena (Isiah's mom), a trader (a keeper of secrets) and Chaudhary (a sly shopkeeper). Each character is developed with acute sensibility and sympathy, allowing us to see nuances in their personalities, deceits and shadows, exposing both bitter and sweet versions of their projected and veiled selves.
Dust is beautifully written book. As the narrative advances through present or past, Owour delivers many remarkable, poetic short sentences. Short sentences and paragraphs that puncture your thoughts. You gasp before you carry on reading. You gasp first at the beauty of the wordplay, then you grasp the insight or ache that each needle-shot sentence releases. The novel emerges in all its intricate and articulate richness through lives transformed by a recent colonial experience as well as political upheavals and corruption in an emergent nation. Perhaps you can appreciate this novel more if you have a native sympathy with the fate of people scarred by colonial pasts and a present corrupted, manipulated by economic interests of multinational companies & their local, vocal, powerful, corrupt collaborators. Some very heartbreaking episodes fill this novel, some heartrending scenes, some events that fill you with disgust and disenchantment, and as a counterpoint, there a few passages that bring peace, understanding, pleasure, closure.

Growing up in India I always knew this dust that consumed and subsumed everything, a dust full of broken promises as well as crushed dreams and desires, a dust laced with blood and sweat of the tormented and the tormentors, a dust we miss when we are away from the nation, a dust that masks and hides hurt, longing, feeling and thoughts. As a writer, I struggle to show this dust, capture its prevalence and importance. As a reader, I seek writing that recognizes it, and removes its veil to reveal narratives that remain concealed in our plain sight. Owuor excels as she accomplishes this. In Dust, Owuor delivers a phenomenal saga that touches upon the human condition, deeply appreciative of sibling and parental affection, deeply conscious of tacit and long-lasting friendships, keenly aware of events that shape human destiny. The opening chapter where Odidi runs and runs, the landscapes through which various protagonists walk or night sounds they hear, Ajany's search for her brother's past and especially the scene where she finds the spot on tarmac still covered with his dried blood...  are all crafted with the skill of a seasoned writer.

The overall story, and the novel's many exceptional passages, are so beautifully crafted and delivered that I am convinced that the novel is destined for a long haul, to be read as a classic by our future generations. After the death of Chinua Achebe, I ached to find some other voice in the world literature who could write with his clarity and sympathy about the non-Western world. I always wondered if  Toni Morrison's raw and lucid style can be emulated in fiction written about men and women who live in erstwhile colonized countries. To place Owuor's book on a similar pedestal is perhaps the highest praise I can offer for this work.

Undoubtedly Owuor has delivered a masterpiece, a work of art that inspires and awes you for it touches many a raw nerve, and brings to light events, ideas, thoughts that are too murky to be appreciated otherwise. Though the narrative unfolds in realms and through descriptions unfamiliar to the imaginative and everyday life of many readers (my explanation for harsher reviews), I think Owuor's sparkling writing is capable of awakening many eyes, hearts and minds to such life-stories. Appreciating the novel Dust does require examination of our own biases, created by our readings and upbringings. Perhaps we need more novels like Dust if we really wish to comprehend the cultural and societal changes taking place in many non-Western nations. Even if the novel treads through threads far from your experience and comfort zone, read it for its music, descriptions and haunting prose and marvel at the author for unraveling secrets of human condition, secrets only a writer from a distant, dusty nation knows. 
--

Saturday, January 11, 2014

An Olympian Heart

After he turned thirty, without a breakthrough
or a clue to a Nobel-worthy scientific discovery,
without a bestseller book, a Booker or a Pulitzer,
without even a proper job, with uncertainty
as his daily wake-up call and nightmare,
he began to respect the millions: the also-rans,
the have-beens and the almost-theres, the faceless
ants, and the termites in foreign sweatshops.

He spent an entire week making paper planes
from his unpublished research articles
and poems. Mass circulation of his ideas
using aerodynamics cleared his desk,
ever so cluttered like his mind. Imagine
hundreds of equations and verbs swirling
down to earth like his ideas about science,
art and self! Humbled by the sadhu time,

he grumbled first about the lost rhyme
and reason of his curious, lyrical self.
To this day, he had considered delayed
gratification a virtue. Now a voice,
his own, classed him as a bygone dream.
Not every fermentation ends up as wine.
He consoled himself with a serpentine logic
that mediocrity, after a sustained effort

at glory, is thermodynamically the most
favored outcome. He finally forgave
his grandma for saying that grazing goats
educates better than his pricy school's
English rhymes, and tie & coats.
After a half-life of borrowed idioms,
he began seeing his unoriginal affairs
as a destiny of desires forged

by an overhyped education. His toolbox
contains every artifact of acquired fact
and abstract training. Tentatively he prods
on, blowing a longhorn of dote learning,
but now he knows -- creativity is a jackfruit
dessert that not everyone who plants a sapling
gets to taste. To pack his bags and leave
would be an admission of grief or lack of belief

in his talents and the establishment. No,
he must persist, for existence is an act,
and he resents an exact estimation of his self.
He is a mass of clay-dust like everyone else,
and immortality is earned by getting churned
in the random eddies of life. Whoever yearns
and stakes his elemental self into the kiln
called life, burns... but only a fraction return

as gold or God, which the mirror suggests
might not be his fate. After he turned forty,
he learned that forgiving faults and failings
helps in retaining self-respect. Outcomes
reveal neither neglect nor unworthiness, not
always. Disillusioned by persistent biases
that favor white or black sheep in a flock,
egg-laying hens to an egoistic fighter cock,

he forged for himself a featureless dream-bowl,
then threw it away. To beg or canvass for votes,
or use family connections or political ploys he felt
would destroy his last caricatures of self-respect.
But if every man were to forgo his dreams, live on facts,
we would regress into a song-less, unchanging universe.
He knows he must persist, for all existence is an act,
we are merely players and before the hero/villain is revealed,

all actors on stage (and some backstage) are suspect.
One breakthrough it takes to light a lamp or an epigram,
one breakthrough! He could be but one step away from the finish.
They who don't ask will never know if the answer is yes or no.
He refines his act, but he is circumspect. Victors revise
biographies; wipe out the salt of doubts from their cheeks.
Since he knows he could yet write himself into a myth,
he braves the daily grindstones, and hopes, and persists.


--

First published in Muse India, Vol1, Jan-Feb, 2014. 
Version 1, Nov 25-28, 2011; V2: July 2012...

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Books read in 2014

Read in 2014 (45 = 26 + 19; NF 13) 
ENGLISH FICTION (10) 
FICTION IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION --  (6): Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov [translated from Russian by David Magarshack], Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz [translated from Hebrew by Nicolas de Lange], The Hen who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang [translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim], (Manual of Painting and Calligraphy by Jose Saramago [translated from Portuguese]), (The Last Day of a Condemned Man by Victor Hugo [translated from French]), The Skin by Curzio Malaparte [translated from Italian].

NOVEL / FICTION IN ENGLISH (4): Home by Toni Morrison, Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Short Stories by Rudyard Kipling, (Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling).


ENGLISH POETRY (17) 
POETRY IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION (10): (Javednama by Mohammad Iqbal [translated from Persian by Arthur J Arberry]),  Poem of the Deep Song (Poema Del Cante Jondo) by Federico Garcia Lorca [translated from Spanish by Carlos Bauer], Complete Poems by Catullus, Poems by Sappho [translated from ancient Greek by Willis Barnstone], Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides by Aeschylus [translated from ancient Greek by David R. Slavitt], (Speaking of Siva [translated by A.K. Ramanujan]), Swallowing the Sun  by Rumi [translated by Franklin D. Lewis] The Solitudes by Luis de Gongora [translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman],
.

POETRY IN ENGLISH (8): A Village Life by Luise Glück, Broken Span by William Carlos Williams, Everything Begins Elsewhere by Tishani Doshi, 100 Poems: Old and New by Rudyard Kipling [Selected  and edited by Thomas Pinney], The Old Horsefly by Karl Shapiro, Selected Poems by Wallace Stevens, Selected Poems by Rudyard Kipling, Ink and Chalk by Shadab Zeest Hasmi,

ENGLISH NON-FICTION (10)
PHILOSOPHY / RELIGION / MYTHOLOGY  (3):  (Vasistha's Yoga translated by Swami Venkatesananda), Mythology by Edith Hamilton, (A Study of Religions by Swami Vivekananda).

POPULAR SCIENCE / ECONOMICS (1): Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science by S. Chandrasekhar, .


NON-FICTION - OTHER (8): In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki [translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker], Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William H. Gass, (Primitive Song by CM Bowra), Black Boy by Richard Wright, Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling, (Heretics by GK Chesterton), Mornings in Mexico and Etruscan Places by DH Lawrence.

MAHABHARATA (by Mahrishi Ved Vyas; translated from Samskrit into English by Kisari Mohun Ganguly) (0/18):

LITERATURE : INDIAN LANGUAGES (5 = 3+1+1)
Hindi / Urdu / Punjabi (Fiction/Mythology: 3+ Poetry: 0+ Non-fiction: 1) (Vishnu Puran), Jhoota Sach: Vatan Aur Desh by Yashpal, Basere Se Dour by Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Ajatshatru by Jaishankar Prasad,

Sanskrit (Fiction: 0+ Poetry: 1): Vishnu Puran


(If I am through more  than 50% of the book, it goes into the list of the year past, otherwise it appears in the new list next year. See here for the books read in 2013, with a selection of my favorite reads in the year past.)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review: The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck is a phenomenally engaging and complex account of a scientific expedition by one of the greatest American novelists. The science itself makes it a worthwhile read, but what tugs most at your heartstrings, and fires most sparks in your head is exceptional prose that serves a cocktail of science, philosophy, anthropology and history. The Log from the Sea of Cortez succinctly presents Steinbeck's beliefs about humanity, vanity, intellect, progress, technology, morality and society, and thus this book provides a key to deeper understanding of Steinbeck's novels, life and work.

At the simplest level, the book recounts a 4,000 mile voyage on a sardine boat out of Monterey, California around the Baja peninsula into the Sea of Cortez. This expedition, undertaken by Steinbeck with his biologist friend Edward Ricketts, was aimed at collecting a wide range of marine animals and observing them in their pristine condition. The curiosity-driven adventure provided Steinbeck and Ricketts an opportunity to explore marine lifeforms and their subtle adaptations in various gulfs, bays, estuaries and reefs along the shores of the Sea of Cortez. The book describes daily events and labor that contributed to a rich harvest (or collection) of many species of crabs, shrimps, anemones, corals, sea cucumbers, sharks, string rays, mussels, clams, and other marine animals.

Many critics and in fact, Steinbeck himself, have recognized that the biologist Ricketts exercised a great deal of influence on the creative and imaginative life of Steinbeck. This log and the complete text of The Sea of Cortez are obvious examples of their collaboration. Based on self-consistent evidence, it is clear that Steinbeck himself was a seeker of deeper knowledge of the scientific and biological world around him, and that his interaction and friendship with Ricketts broadened his perspective on science, life and humanity. In our contemporary world, there are fewer than ever individuals who are equally comfortable in discussions that involve bot literature and science. Steinbeck seems equally deft in writing about both realms.
The book is full of passages about research and science that are gems in their own right, and I am sure many scientists would enjoy reading these. Example sentences: "There is a curious idea among the unscientific men that in scientific writing there is a common plateau of perfectionism. Nothing could be more untrue. The reports of biologists are the measure, not of the science, but of the men themselves." Or these sentences from another chapter: "It is difficult, when watching the little beasts, not to trace human parallels. The greatest danger to a speculative biologist is analogy. It is a pitfall to be avoided -- the industry of the bee, the economics of the ant, the villainy of snake, all i human terms have given us profound misconceptions of animals." Somewhere else in the book, Steinback writes: "There is one great difficulty with a good hypothesis. When it is completed and rounded, the corners smooth and the content cohesive and coherent, it is likely to become a thing in itself, a work of art. It is then like a finished sonnet or a painting completed. One hates to disturb it."

There are particularly powerful and evocative discussions and passages about the distance and difference between the timeless, archaic culture of the Native American (aka American Indians) and the hasty, wasteful, money-minded culture of urban Americans. Steinbeck explored similar themes in his other books and in the script he wrote for a documentary titled "The Forgotten Village" (1941).

Steinbeck the writer is as soul stirring here as he was in The Grapes of Wrath. Likewise, his world view expressed in this log will be in conflict with the same people who labeled him as a socialist or a communist. Though many people see Steinbeck as a propagandist who spews venom against the rich and the ruling elite, a critical examination of Steinbeck's writing here shows him as a person who wants to see reality as it 'is'. This reality, be it socio-political realm or biosphere, contains weak and strong, preys and predators, survivors and dead. Though Steinbeck writes about humans or marine animals like a detached observer, his sympathies seem to lie with the underdog. Perhaps that is the reason for his popularity around the world.

The book reaffirms my belief that great scientists and artists have both caliber and appetite for acquiring knowledge in diverse realms. I think the travelogue is an inspirational text and a valuable resource that should be read by all practicing or aspiring marine biologists.  It is a must read for anyone who really cares about the writing of Steinbeck, and I dare say, for all scientifically-minded people.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: Jospeh Anton by Salman Rushdie

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie is a memoir of his alias-being, a shadow-identity that allowed the author to exist in spite of threats, insults, stress and the fatwa that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses. Shadows are two-dimensional, and their form, size and intensity changes as a day progresses. Shadows are visible only when light is blocked. For years Salman Rushdie lead the life of Joseph Anton, a shadow, haunted by justified fears for his life and the life for his loved ones. The memoir revisits the psychological, social, political, personal, national, international, literary and imaginary landscapes Salman Rushdie inhabited for nearly twelve years. The name Joseph Anton, we learn, was forged by combining the names of two of Salman's favorite authors: Joesph (Conrad) and Anton (Chekov).

For readers like me acquainted with nearly every book and essay Salman has written as a novelist and an essayist, the memoir provides a rare voyeuristic perspective into the workings of a fascinating author. The conception of each novel and essay, especially the ones he wrote during his years spend in hiding, involve stories made poignant and almost tragic-comic in the retelling by the protagonist. We learn about many other authors, their eccentricities and foibles, and the behavioral and political choices authors, politicians and the majority among us make when faced with a death sentence hanging over the head of a writer, thinker, intellectual like Salman Rushdie.

Is it possible to write an autobiographical text without appearing self-obsessed and self-congratulatory? Maybe, maybe not. Let me pick three autobiographical texts from Indian sub-continent to compare with Joseph Anton: Mahatma Gandhi's My Experiments with Truth, Harivansh Rai Bachchan's autobiography in four parts and Baburnama. Gandhiji text provides a glimpse into the development of a leader whose impact on humankind has given this text a stature beyond its literary worth. History will note that his ideas and writing influenced the course of the Indian freedom struggle and served as inspiration to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr as well as countless leaders and commoners in Africa, Asia and Americas. Baburnama, which is supposedly the first autobiographical text by a Muslim author, provides an exceptional account of the life and rise of Babur from a small chieftain in and around Samarkand and Kabul to the founder of the Mughal Empire in India. The richness of the text is perhaps in its catalog of defeats and victories, families and feuds, customs and comments, wines and fruits and landscape and lifestyle of a bygone era, but the longevity of text rests primarily on the exploits of an emperor.

In contrast, Bachchan's autobiography is perhaps the only one that is both a literary masterpiece and a personal testimony, and at both levels it is full of otherwise inaccessible perspective about the author, his life & work, and his world. Rushdie's Joseph Anton succeeds like Babur's and Gandhiji's text do, as notes that will be remembered primarily in contexts of other deeds and words enacted off the page. Unlike Bachchan's autobiography, where the author explores his own weaknesses and incongruities, along with those of his friends and family, Rushdie's writing is aimed at setting a record straight about the impact of fatwa on his being and writing. In Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie shows (not tells) how his personal life was altered completely, irreversibly and how the writer came to terms with a relentless barrage of opinions and counter-opinions that considered him a trouble-maker rather than a victim. Though the larger issues about artistic values, freedom of speech, religious fundamentalism, political ambivalence, national security, terrorism and exile are all integral to the narrative of Joseph Anton, the personal struggle of Salman Rushdie is too distant from the experiences of even his most ardent readers, giving it a flavor of "unmagical unrealism", if such a phrase can be used to describe Joseph Anton. They who condemn him for writing The Satanic Verses believe he  launched himself into an orbit of nearly no return by writing what they consider blasphemous book, and unfortunately, the people who condemned him earlier would neither show empathy towards the author nor compunction for their behavior after reading Joseph Anton, if they ever read Joseph Anton.
By writing Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie reinforces his demand on all intellectuals, liberal and otherwise, to take a stand against the practice of silencing voices, banishing authors and burning books. Salman's own survival we learn here has been made possible by the efforts of multiple governments, efficient and nameless security officers & guards, staunch friends and a great deal of expenditure. Attacks on ideas and writers have continued nearly unabated in our times. Unfortunately, even after so many authors have been sacrificed at the altar of literature and truth, most of us continue to bide time in silence. Jospeh Anton is a strong and a soul-stirring reminder of how even the most advanced and liberal nations (and citizens) can be held hostage by a small group with strong opinions or by the threat of religion-related or sometimes superstition-related violence. 
Though we must feel free to disagree with writers like Salman on many issues and take time to criticize their words or choices, we owe it to the humanity to provide safe passage to all ideas and ideologues. Even though it is convenient to believe that the callous and shallow ideas, harmful and deceitful writings and the power or influence of dishonest and vicious writers/politicians will disappear in time, it is only through free speech and active engagement with all facets of an argument that we can turn tables sooner rather than later. Read Joseph Anton and see how many spark plugs in your mind are set ringing by Salman Rushdie, who I love to call a blasphemous apostle. If you haven't read him already before, to really appreciate the extraordinary skill, wit and intellect of Salman Rushdie the writer, pick Midnight's Children or Haroun and the Sea of Stories, for these will be valuable reads even a thousand years from now.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

To Sachin Tendulkar, my hero

My dear Sachin Tendulkar,

I bid you farewell today with a lot of emotion. I am every Indian cricket fan who watched you perform for 24 years (gloriously on days, doggedly when chips were down). I am every person who respects great accomplishments that come with honest effort, perseverance and cultured skill. I am every fan who has admired the grace and the gravity of your on the ground, and off-the-ground words and deeds. You are a worthy hero in your own right, and you have been an inspiration to all of us in more ways and on more days than can be enumerated. I so wish we had more like you in every field. There is more to write and say but we will leave that for another day, as great emotions leave little room for words.

Thank you for every burst of hope and inspiration to provided to me and the nation, and for a career full of accomplishment.

Regards
Vivek

Saturday, August 31, 2013

In English

Do we, westernize desi sentiments, when we write in English?
Do we, our longings, appear bastardized or contrite in English?


I concur, puns lack the cultural context. Metaphors lack that bite.
Don't we Indians suffer from a self-imposed exile in English?


In Hindi and Urdu lie the battles of Sanskrit and Farsi roots,
I escape Indian divisions but territorial wars I fight in English.


More Indians speak/read it, than Americans plus British do.
Why is the universe surprised if I choose to delight in English?


Blacks, Southerners speak in drawl, British have an accent!
Should I worry if we can't count syllables right in English?


Can I become a revered poet-prophet without writing in Hindi?
Even my mother insists, I sound foreign, uptight in English.


Restrain, veils, euphemisms, religious propriety, traditions:
I break chains; let my Muse celebrate her respite in English.


Even the most illiterate in the East sing verses of the great poets.
I seek that ideal, immortality. Can I scale that height in English?


For ten centuries, the East has glowed in the candlelight of Ghazals.
Vivek blazes with the passions Shahid too sought to ignite in English.


--

Published first in Contemporary Ghazals, 2013